Here's the deal: legendary US comic Rick Shapiro has been ill. Awesome Aussie comedy wrangler Julie Lawless has organised a fundraiser for Tuesday 21 August 2012. Hilarious Aussie (and unnameable internationals) are performing. Here's the gig. Story follows. Read and come along.
Julie Lawless â venue booker and tour organiser of both hip young talent and established legendary performers â is virtually âfresh off the planeâ when I catch up with her for a chat. Sheâs just been to Montrealâs âJust For Laughsâ comedy festival, returning via New York in order to check out new talent and old friends. Which is a good thing for everyone. Itâs via Julie, when she was managing Sydneyâs Laugh Garage, that we were treated to the likes of Lee Camp, Sam Tripoli, Thai Rivera, Nikki Lynn Katt and the very legendary Rick Shapiro.
I was first aware of Julie as the maker of hilarious and insightful comments on mutual friendsâ Facebook pages. One of those mutual friends, comic Julia Wilson [whom fellow comic Danny McGinlay has noted, serves as my âgood people policeâ] assured me Lawless was a cool chick worth knowing.
âBless her,â Julie says. âI love Julia Wilsonâ. And so say all of us!
Although Lawless had been into comedy prior, she started interacting in the industry in the âearly noughtiesâ â âaround 2000, Iâm guessingâ. Reading street publication The Brag one day, she came across âa tiny little paragraph about Chris Wainhouse, who was playing the Fringe Bar. The piece ended, ââ¦make friends with Chris on MySpaceâ¦ââ Having just joined MySpace, Chris Wainhouse ended up being Julieâs first social networking virtual friend whom she didnât know in real life. Although real life friendship ensued:
âWe started hanging out. And thatâs what I pinpoint as the beginning. Iâd been to see live comedy before, but after having made friends with him and joking around on MySpace and then becoming friends with other comics and going to shows, I got to know people that way.â
It was through another such friend, comic Sally Kimpton â who, for a time, shared a house with comics Wainhouse and Paul Brasch â that Julie started working at the Laugh Garage. âDo you feel like bossing comics around?â Sally asked Julie, handing over an ad the Laugh Garage taken out for the position of manager. âI applied and got the job,â Julie says. âThat was my first professional involvement. Via MySpace!â
Part of me thinks the early noughties are a bit early for MySpace. But if Lawless and Wainhouse really did strike up a cyber friendship that early, I may have had a hand in it. I wrote most of The Bragâs comedy copy from 1998 (when it was still Revolver) to 2003. âThatâs just awesome!â Julie says. âIâd like to think it was courtesy of Dom Romeo â that would add one more cog to my tale of how I got into comedy. And Chris is still one of my favourite comics to this day.â
Julie no longer manages the Laugh Garage. Now she runs Lawless Entertainment, and in this capacity looks after a number of venues. By âlook afterâ, I do mean âbookâ, but itâs often more than that. Julie curates nights of comedy. It started with her simply helping organise gigs for overseas comedian friends visiting Australia. It started as simply as booking them for the Laugh Garage and ensuring there were other opportunities for them once they got here. âIâve sort of made everything up as Iâve gone along, because nobodyâs ever really taught me how to do this stuff,â Julie says. She learnt on her feet. Very quickly. Consider her involvement in the Worldâs Funniest Island comedy festival, taking place on Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour. For the second year, she was programming the coolest stage.
âI totally was!â Julie laughs, appreciating the complement without taking herself too seriously. And then rightfully correcting me: âThe two coolest stages, actuallyâ.
Because Julie was in charge of âÂ¡Satiristas!â â Julian Morrow, chairing a discussion on satire that was to feature the likes of Paul Provenza (who wrote the book Â¡Satiristas!), Lee Camp, Will Durst and Rod Quantock. âThat talk panel was going to be amazing,â she says.
Unfortunately, that second Worldâs Funniest Island festival never came to be. âWhen the rug got pulled out from under us, it was pretty heartbreaking for everyone involved, of course,â Julie says. However, she was instrumental The Worldâs Funniest Wreckage â a showcase of many of the comics who would have performed on Cockatoo Island â which proved a roaring success, as were the various other comedy spots around town, to accommodate the comics who had come over.
Of course, it was a year earlier, at the initial Worldâs Funniest Island, that I first encountered the comic, actor, poet and legend that is Rick Shapiro â one of a number of great international, and yet criminally locally unknown â comics featured that year by the Laugh Garage. The Laugh Garageâs â and thus, Julieâs â involvement with Shapiro began with âSuperfans in Perth and Melbourne contacting me and getting the ball rollingâ.
âI got a Facebook message from a comic I didnât know called Evan McHugh McAwesome, saying âWould you put Shapiro on if we got him out here?ââ Julie recounts. âMcAwesome and a couple of guys from Perth were obsessed with Shapiro: theyâd made a mini-documentary about looking for him in New York and got the ball rolling. We took it from there.â (It's worth noting that some Perth people are, comparatively, obsessed â after all, Tuesday night at Perth comedy venue Lazy Susan's is 'Shapiro Tuesday'!)
For the uninitiated, Rick Shapiro might be considered a kind of be-bop version of Woody Allen: a hip take on the observations of a New York Jewish upbringing. Rather than playing the chords, be-bop is about implying the chords by playing the harmonies. Likewise, Shapiro doesn't do the traditional lead line/feed line/punch line joke structure - he implies jokes by telling stories that talk around the topic and rarely end on pat punch lines, adopting characters and setting up situations that leave room for the audience to interpret and engage without the need to make it obvious. They are organic â albeit hyperactive and highly energised â routines that skitter and dodge and weave much like, you begin to imagine, the comic has been forced to, throughout life.
Watching Shapiro at the Worldâs Funniest Island was a supreme pleasure, but it meant that other great comics who immediately followed were difficult to watch because it took time to acclimatise to their more linear approach to comedy. âItâs hard to follow a high-energy act like that,â Julie concurs.
Julie knows â she was essentially Rickâs tour manager in Sydney. Having had the pleasure of hanging out with them for an awesome afternoon barbecue (that ended well after midnight) I can say itâs an adventure full of engaging diversions following Rick down the streets to the shops, let alone following him on stage.
Harold Park Hotel
With Julie's gig- and comic-wrangling history, Lawless Entertainment made perfect sense. Management company A-List Entertainment â who look after a number of big names â used to book two rooms that continue to offer the two longest-running comedy nights in Australia: the Old Manly Boatshed (Monday nights) and the Oatley Hotel (Wednesday nights). When A-List divested themselves of the rooms, they sought someone âappropriateâ to run them. Someone who âwasnât a manager, agent or comic, and so would have no conflict of interestâ. That person? Julie Lawless.
âThey very kindly thought of me. Iâve been running those rooms for about a year and a quarter.â
More recently, Julie is involved in the renaissance of the Harold Park Hotel. This is a major gain â for Lawless Entertainment, for Sydney Comedy, and for the Harold Park. âBack in the dayâ (from the early â80s to the turn of the millennium), the Harold Park Hotel was one of two definitive Sydney comedy venues (the other being Sydneyâs Original Comedy Store). The Harold Park was a place where you got to see so many amazing talents in their formative years â as well as the cream of the international crop. Robin Williams played there whenever visiting to flog a film.
Sold to developers towards the end of the â90s, the Harold Park Hotel always promised to retain a âwine barâ-type comedy venue, yet its couple of stabs at comedy since have never quite cut it. Its current incarnation is its most promising yet.
âIâve been booking the Harold Park for about a month and itâs fantastic,â Julie says. âItâs alike a little custom-built theatre created with comedy in mind.â She elaborates: this time round, the comedy takes place upstairs, âright away from the main bar this timeâ. Which is how they first launched the new Harold Park some years back â before throwing up open mic comics to an indifferent bar.
Sounds good. And according to Julie, it is: âEveryoneâs enjoyed all the shows there. We had Dicko there last week, watching Chris Franklin!â On the whole, she says, âthey seem to be a pretty smart crowd around there, so Iâm trying to give them some clever comedy.â
Stand Up For Shapiro
The Stant Up Shapiro Fundraiser Gala promises to be clever â and very special. While Rick Shapiro continues to play Edinburgh Fringe with his show Rebirth, it is in the wake of what is now being referred to a âminor heart incidentâ that he had a few months ago. âHe was actually hospitalised and wheelchair-bound for about 45 days,â Julie says. A month-and-a-half of incapacitation when your income is stand-up comedy, in addition to the USAâs arcane and downright medieval approach to health care, means no ability to meet what must be astronomical health bills. âI donât know exactly what they are,â Julie says, âbut I got billed $3,000 for a broken finger that I didnât even get treated, so you can imagine what 45 days is going to add up to.â
There have been a number of fundraisers of Shapiro in the United States. Now, says, Julie, âweâve decided to show Rick our love over here. Everyoneâs working for free on this: absolutely every cent that we raise is going directly to Shapiro, not just to help him with his bills but also to show him that we love him.â
Of course, you want to know whoâs on: mostly, comics who relate to Rick and are friends with him. This includes some international acts that Iâm not at liberty to divulge â but I am able to list Damian Smith, Sally Kimpton, Ben Ellwood, Darren Sanders and Simon Palomares.
Tue 21st Auguest 2012
Show starts at 8pm, with doors open at 7pm.
Cost is $15 (or $10 if youâve got student or backpackers id).
âIâm going to ask any comics who turn up and donât want to pay to put money in the bucket at the door.â
âNot officially,â Aussie Castro says. He explains:
âI had to take drugs to deal with my family on Christmas day. I was so out of my god-damned mind at Christmas lunch that this guy Iâd never met â a family friend â looked and sounded exactly like Timothy Dalton in Hot Fuzz.â
I see. By ânot officiallyâ, Aussie Castro means, ânot at allâ. This is going to be fun.
Aussie Castro is in fact Blake Mitchell, an imposing, baby-faced Anglo Australian who can come across quite scary â particularly when heâs rockinâ a shaved head. The tall, lean Indian is Ash Jattan. They are Sydney comics who regularly appear on the open-mic circuit and, though not officially a double act, they carry some of the classic hallmarks, from the way they complement each other physically â fat versus thin, white versus black â and stylistically: Ash, instantly likeable on stage, has been known to pull out a guitar; in-your-face Blake, meanwhile, wonât sweeten the message and he doesnât pull any punches in his comedy of the abject. Despite their differences, they can finish each otherâs sentences seamlessly and ad lib the same line in unison.
Together, theyâre promoting Phukluband Ha Ha Alternative Comedy, a couple of monthly comedy rooms they kind of run.
I say âkind ofâ because Phuklub exists as a collective (some might say âcultâ). Thereâs not really a single person in charge and the stalwarts of the room have healthy enough egos that nobody wants a title so much as they want to collaborate to ensure the room exists. Itâs alternative and âout thereâ. In some ways, itâs self-indulgent and a surprise itâs still running; it hasnât lost direction or burnt itself out; the novelty still hasnât worn off.
The other, called Ha Ha Alternative Comedy is a harder room to pigeonhole. Founded by Jen Carnevale and Madeleine Culp AKA âCarnevale & Culpâ AKA âThe Cloud Girlsâ (of Triple J fame), it may have been âalternativeâ when it began but now itâs another one of the quality rooms running in Sydney with a high calibre of open mic comics featured. Which is why itâs more difficult to make Ha Ha stand out â itâs no longer as âalternativeâ as Phuklub, even though itâs not as weird. When the Cloud Girls decamped to the UK, rather than see the room end, Ash put up his hand to keep it going. It remains the one place you can dependably see a good comic on a Sunday night in Sydneyâ¦ if itâs the Sunday night that Ha Ha happens to be running.
Phuklub and Ha Ha are flip sides of the same coin: they take place in the same room of the same pub â the Roxbury Hotel on St Johns Road, Glebe (also the venue of Comedy on the Rox on a Wednesday nightâ¦). What both rooms provide is a space for comics to explore more freely what it is they do. There comes a time in a comedianâs development where, rather than merely be funny, they might want to try to say something that matters. But while âsaying something that mattersâ may be a worthy goal, it isnât always an easy one to arrive at. The journey may include delivering material that says something, that happens to be less funny. And few audiences â the more comedy-savvy ones, really â have much time for the material that happens to be less funny, no matter how clever it might be. So comics trying to say something that matters have less opportunity to get good at it. Rooms that actually encourage it have to be able to pull off a balancing act in order to ensure thereâs still plenty of the totally funny stuff to accompany the material thatâs trying to say something that matters. Thatâs why rooms like Ha Ha and Phuklub exist: to provide a dedicated space for comedians to explore what they do.
TOP: Blake & Ellwood, theOoze Brothers. (Photo of Ben by Cassandra Lee Noad) BOTTOM: Close your eyes and itâs impossible to tell them apart.
The Ooze Brothers
Shut your eyes when heâs talking â or hear him heckling from somewhere up the back â and itâs easy to mistake Blake Mitchell for another Sydney comic, Ben Ellwood. Both comics sound similar, but Ellwoodâs line of humour, while trawling the same mucky vein of humanityâs flawed underbelly, is more polished. Thus, Benâs more accessible and funnier. But for a time, theyâd pal around the same gigs and when one of them chose to give the sub-standard pretender on stage a hard time, youâd actually need to look over your shoulder in order to see which of the two it was. Their love of exploring the more unsavoury aspects of the human condition and a seeming interchangeability enabled them to be considered a kind of single entity: Blake and Ellwood. âThe Ooze Brothersâ. Blake finds this somehow flattering.
âThat could spring from the constant âgay chickenâ we used to play with each other,â he laughs. âYou heard about the sitcom Ellwood was pitching, right? Two Gay Fatties? Itâs just him and me making out at the windows of 5-star restaurants, trying to get the guests to pukeâ¦â
Though heâs back visiting, Ellwood relocated to the UK with the Cloud Girls late last year. In the time since, Blakeâs developed further and continued to find more of his own voice and persona. That is to say, heâs much less âapprentice Ellwoodâ than before. Particularly with his beard. Give him a cigar â or more appropriately, a âCamberwell Carrotâ (the jumbo spliff made notorious in Withnail & I) â and he is Aussie Castro.
âMaybe,â Aussie Castro says. âI hope you meet a similar end, being killed by Bolivian government troops.â
They make each other snicker with their casual, freeform banter. It isnât âroll in the aislesâ hilarity, just leisurely play. Perhaps a kernel of an idea will be planted, a seed that, taking root and growing, will burst unexpectedly through the soil of their psyche as a more fully-formed joke somewhere down the track, without their being able to trace it back to the silliness that gave rise to it.
But perhaps some ideas that were meant to die here will instead fester and rot in a manner not intended for public consumption. Weâve barely begun and there have already been admissions of drug-taking and foolish nonsense that, out of context, will surely offend someoneâs sensibilities. But when I ask if anything should be regarded âoff the recordâ, Blake responds with astonished laughter, appreciative that Iâm polite enough to enquire, but intent that, even if we do exercise caution and err on the side of conservatism, we still wonât cross the line so much as obliterate it as we lumber irresistibly beyond it.
âAsk whatever you feel you got to, man,â Ash encourages. âFeel free to send a copy of this to NSW State Police.â
âAnd to the CIA and ASIO,â Blake adds.
Ash Jattan at Ha Ha.
Parody for the course
Ash came to comedy the way a lot of open mic comics do: as the funny guy at the water cooler at work and the joker at the pub whose colleagues and mates encouraged to âgive it a proper goâ. But Ash also came to comedy via music. As a student at Sydney University, heâd play the occasional lunchtime gig in Manning Bar. Heâd also busk occasionally, confessing that heâd sometimes make enough money to catch the last train home from Central!
So when he did give comedy âa proper goâ, entering Raw Comedy in Sydney, he established himself as a topical comic who could actually play guitar (not all guitar-wielding open mic-ers can) and write original, funny songs.
âThe jokes I wrote got laughs,â Ash acknowledges, of his early forays into stand-up âbut the more I did it the more I realised just how f*cking sh*t I was. That didnât put me off, it only strengthened my resolve.â
Ash realised he was trying to second-guess his audience, writing material in order to placate them so that he could âmake them love himâ on stage â a phase of development common to most comics. He soon decided to move away from that, and the first step was to ditch the guitar and avoid writing âparody sh*tâ.
We all laugh at the self-deprecation that is warranted on some level. But credit where itâs due: âWeird Alâ Yankovic hasnât done too badly with an entire career founded on so-called âparody sh*tâ. Ash concurs. His feeling is, there are a host of comics â yer Weird Als, yer Mick Merediths, yer Chris Franklins, who have done the parody thing better than him. âTheyâre on top of it,â he says. âIf I had a single iota of that, I would be so happy.â
Fact is, Ash has got the âsingle iotaâ. More, in fact. Rather than base his shtick around it, however, he can use it to make his stand-up stand out. In the hour-long performance scenario, for example, around the 35 to 45 minute mark when, irrespective of the style or genre, something needs to happen to change the pace and create more tension before pulling all the threads together: that would be the perfect time to pull out the guitar, especially if everything that has gone before was spoken word.
Blake agrees: âEspecially if you want an applause break. Because weâre all conditioned to clap as soon as someone stops playing a song.â
So true. Thatâs the source of the guitarâs contention in stand-up comedy. Invariably, an audience reacts with enthusiasm far beyond the level earned by a newbie comic who pulls out the guitar or a backing track for a half-baked song at the end of a set. Multiple verses of essentially the same punch line to a blues accompaniment in E can somehow undo the damage of a badly delivered collection of hackneyed and derivative observations and predictable reveals. But that was never Ashâs method; he can actually play the instrument, and write real songs containing actual jokes. So why ditch it?
âThere were times when the audience loved it, but I felt it was underserved,â he confesses. âI felt sorry for the guys who didnât bring a guitar along and relied purely on their moxie and the ability to just spit venomâ¦â
God bless Ash Jattan for being so pure of heart a comic. My position would be: lull the audience into a false sense of security with the guitar, and then spit venom.
âYeah, okay,â Ash agrees. âEvery magic trick has three parts!â
âA false sense of security!â Blake pipes up. âI donât have a chance to lull people into a false sense of securityâ¦â
Too true. Thatâs down to Blakeâs scary countenance. Particularly when he takes to the stage with a freshly shaved head. âItâs like a Folsom Prison stand-off,â he says of those occasions.
âYou look like âAryan Brotherhoodâ material,â Ash adds.
ââI shot a man in Reno to make an audience laughâ?â I suggest.
âAnd also cum,â Blake confirms, ever the Ooze Brother.
And that reminds me of how I first encountered Blake. Not in person, but by reputation.
Blake as âAryan Brotherhood materialâ â Ash
Rollins with me, Henry
There was this thing called Phuklub, a weird, alternative room started by comic Nick Sun, one of the legendary local open mic-ers who did amazing things: winning Raw Comedy nationally, going on to win the UK equivalent So You Think Youâre Funny, turning his back on the painfully safe, mainstream road to success by throwing up real challenges for himself, his peers and his audiencesâ¦
This is the Phuklub manifesto:
PHUKLUB is the brainchild of Nick Sun, who received a divine vision from a higher power one night when he ate too much blue cheese before bedtime. While lying in bed dressed in his superman pajamas pondering the possible contraindications of a high dose tyramine and MAOI medication interaction, a mediaeval dressed Alien being appeared him, and speaking in Ãber-camp ye olde English, transmitted the answers to the Weekend Cryptic Crosswords in an exhausting marathon game of charades. Upon waking up the next morning covered in baby filth in a drainage ditch in Hamburg, Parramatta, Nick realised he didnât give a sh*t about Cryptic Crosswords and resolved to instead start his own weirdo underground avant-garde comedy/variety night.
Blake, however, was â as far as I was concerned â some guy who popped up in one of the various Phuklub stories Ben Ellwood used to like to tell. Apparently Blake once attended Phuklub with an envelope containing two spent condoms â knotted at the top â which he presented to performance artist Jane Grimley. Jane was, along with Nick Sun, one of the Phuklubâs prime instigators and Agent Provocateurs; she seems to come across in stories as somewhat of the Den Mother to whatever kind of cult Phuklub actually isâ¦
Blakeâs provocative protein packages were unquestionably gross. Not to be outdone, however, Jane proceeded to put them in her mouth. You know this doesnât end prettily. Perhaps itâs funny. Itâs certainly abject. Is it comedy? Doesnât matter. It wasn't comedy that Blake set out to do.
âI started because I wanted to be Henry Rollins,â Blake says. Ash stifles a laugh. Blake continues:
âAnd then you realise Henry Rollins is a brand all his ownâ¦â Ash manages to continue stifling the laugh while Blake further outlines hindrances to his Rollinsular metamorphosis:
âAnd also, Iâm not in shapeâ¦â. Laughter nigh impossible to contain. Blake:
âAnd even though I have the anger, Iâm too interested in pop culture to be too politically mindedâ¦â
Thereâs no holding back now. Both explode, Ash with laughter, Blake with âGo f*ck yourself!â
âYou wanted to be Henry Rollins!â Ash shakes his head.
Blake had genuinely set out to follow the Henry Rollins/Jello Biafra literate punk trajectory: in addition to doing âangerâ, he played drums. The move to comedy was ultimately the result of laziness: âI got sick of lugging gear. I just wanted to turn up to a show and do it.â
In addition to Rollins â âwho isnât really comedyâ â Blake was also into Bill Hicks. âWho, people argue, isnât really comedy,â he says. The initial foray into open mic in August 2008 marked the beginning of âfour months of nothing but hack b*llsh*t: Michael Jackson jokes, relationship cr*p, the usual thing.â 2009 saw Patton Oswalt replace Henry Rollins as the performer Blake most wanted to be, followed by a break. After six months travelling, Blake returned and, âfor the past year and a half,â he says, âIâve actually been slowly approaching something thatâs not someone else.â
All of this explains the perceived role of Apprentice Ben Ellwood early on: not having a multitude of varied influences prior to starting, it was the comics closer to home who influenced Blakeâs development. There really was a time when Blake was on stage, but if you shut your eyes, it was Ellwood with as much anger but less punch lines.
âThatâs still a problem, I think!â Blake laughs.
Spot the difference: Blake Mitchell, Henry Rollins
What Blake doesnât tell you â not for any apparent reason â is that he went to film school and has worked on some choice features like Superman Returns, Gabriel, Australia, Wolverine and even a bit of Underbelly. But, he says, âfor some reason, I feel my calling is to gain attention from strangers by talking about my dick and my depression on stage.â
The other thing Blake has spoken of on stage at least once is the time he auditioned for the Australian version of Balls of Steel. Blake had initially pitched an idea for a character called âBig Babyâ. âIt was just going to be me walking around in a diaper in public,â he says, but itâs hard not to assume that it was in fact a clever ploy to enable him to latch onto random strangersâ breasts. Surprisingly, that idea was rejected.
Blakeâs next pitch involved him âturning up to places with a little tea party set, sitting down to have tea with stuffed toys, and then getting up to scream at people, âYou canât tell me what to do with my children!ââ This idea was also rejected. âThey thought that was a little bit âart houseâ.â
In the end, Blake auditioned for the part of âObject Sexualâ, in which heâd find himself sexually attracted to everyday objects in public. The filmed audition took place in Hyde Park, where Blake spied a phallic rod protruding from a fountain. He decided it would serve as the ideal penis substitute and made for it, while a producer and cameraman filmed from a distant vantage point.
âI couldnât actually get to the dick-shaped object so I just jumped in the fountain instead,â Blake says. After frolicking in the water for a bit, he was surprised to hear someone ask, âSweetie, are you okay?â
âI turned around, shocked because someone was actually talking to me, concerned,â Blake explains. âIt was a woman who thought I was mentally illâ¦â
âShe wasnât wrong, really,â Ash suggests.
Cleverly, Blake decided to âaccept the offerâ, playing the role perfectly as the lady coaxed him out of the fountain and onto a park bench, all the while enquiring after his carer or parents. When the producer finally arrived, Blake gave him a dose of Steve Martinâs Ruprecht the Monkey Boy, from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, falling onto him with a big embrace and demanding hamburgers. The great pity is that this footage didnât make the Balls of Steel DVD as a bonus feature. Maybe itâll turn up on the Two Gay Fatties DVDâ¦
If, by now, you donât quite know what to make of Blake Mitchell, Ash Jattan does. âTo be perfectly honest,â he admits, âit was the Ben Ellwoods and Blake Mitchells and people like that who made me look at what I was doing. These guys are so fearless and raw, whereas Iâm trying to get the audience to like me! Once I started seeing real people â the real grit of their performance â up there night after night, sometimes two or three nights a week, I knew I had to move on.â
Blake takes the compliment, adding, âdoing what I do doesnât get you booked, unfortunately. Which is why we had to start Phuklub!â
And there it is again. Time to address it.
âQuite frankly, Phuklub scares me,â I tell them.
âGood,â Ash says. âMission accomplished.â
Asking direct questions does not result in direct answers.
âWhat is Phuklub?â I demand.
âIsnât that the question?â Ash replies. âI think the answer will vary depending on who you ask because everyoneâs got such a unique experience of it. One of the best descriptions Iâve heard is from a guy called Dan Brown. He says, âimagine thereâs a classroom, and then the teacher leaves, and the kids are just left to their own devicesâ¦ââ
âOh, now I get it. Itâs The Lord of the Flies of comedy!â
âPretty much,â Blake confirms. âItâs kind of a free-for-all. Nick Sun started it originally in late 2008. In the very inception it was on twice a week.â
âYeah, but what is it? A collective? A workshop? Who gets to perform? Are people booked? Are their names pulled out of a hat? Is it a punishment?â
According to Blake, when it began it was more like âan experimental open mic anarchy anti-talent quest,â and when I ask, âwho wonâ he and Ash reply in unison:
While âNobody Winsâ could well be the theme of Phuklub, itâs not as good as the motto Blake recently came up with: âShut up and think of death while we do art at youâ.
âYou know how crests have two animals on them?â Ash says. âOurs is going to have a unicorn blowing a gryphon.â
âMaybe it should just be a man holding a microphone, crying,â Blake suggests.
This isnât really getting us any closer to the nub of the gist, as it were, of what Phuklub is. âI donât know how to summarise it,â Ash says. âIt probably would have been a good idea to prepare a good definition for youâ¦â
âThe first rule of Phuklub: No one can define Phuklub,â I offer.
Basically, itâs a collective of comics with a core group that does not remain static. âAt the moment itâs us, Ben Ellwood and Dan Brown,â Blake says. âIn the past thereâs been Jane Grimley and Nick Sun. People sort of float in and out of that core group: Rodney Todd, Nick Capperâ¦â
âWeâre like a sleeper cell!â Ash says, making Blake laugh. âWe donât really have any organised leader. Thereâs no one face you can point at and say, âthatâs the guy whoâs in chargeâ.â
âI think people get confused,â Blake adds, âbecause there is no one personâ¦â
ââ¦Who you can blame?â I cut in.
âLiterally, chaos reigns,â Blake insists. âThatâs how its run.â
âItâs âOccupy Comedyâ,â Ash concludes.
L-R: Aussie Castro; but also, Aussie Dude Abides
Zen and the art of complete and utter chaos
If I have misgivings or concerns about Phuklub, itâs the way in which it comes across as a naughty boysâ club. Thereâs room for girls if they can hold their own, titillating with out-grossing antics. Thatâs how it seems on the surface.
This isnât the case, however. Ash and Blake offer the example of Sue Thomas, a regular fixture on the Sydney open mic circuit and of Phuklub. By day sheâs a âlibrarian who used to stalk Paul McDermottâ.
âSueâs on virtually every Phuklub,â Blake says. âShe reads erotic fiction while we play the theme from Twin Peaks over the top of it.â
Thatâs not to say there arenât edgy, scary moments â but the audience seems to dig them. âPeople have come up after a show and asked if there are videos of past performances available,â Ash says. âThey genuinely would like to buy them.â
âTheyâre kind of like diet snuff movies,â Blake says.
âItâs âI Canât Believe Itâs Not Snuffâ,â Ash says.
âItâs âI need to see the guy on stage break and drop the microphone, because the sound guy keeps drowning him out with the Seinfeld theme ever ten secondsâ,â says Blake.
Is that what it is: a deliberate deconstruction of stand-up comedy, a breaking it down and rebuilding it, so that practitioners can learn how to it better?
âThatâs part of it. It gives space to explore the kinds of areas that youâre not going to have the opportunity to explore at other comedy rooms or on other nights. Itâs our therapy session, once a month,â Blake says. âWhen the same old tired beige b*llsh*t in every other room stops making you laugh, turn up. When youâre sick of hearing, âSo I was walking down the street the other dayâ as a set up â because, no you werenât, you f*cking idiotâ¦â
Ash picks it up: ââA funny think happened to me on the way hereâ¦â No it f*cking didnât! âIâve got this friend whoâ¦â No you donât!â
Blake: âYouâre fabricating this whole thing. And talking about Harry Potterâ¦â
Ash: âThat is what drew me to that room. When I started out and I saw a lot of people doing comedy, I laughed out of politeness at a lot of the stuff, and then I got to the point where I thought, I donât think any of this is funny. Why arenât I letting them know that?â
Now I understand. There are times when youâre in the audience thinking, âWhat? You made them laugh with that?! I donât know who I hate more â the audience for falling for it or you for getting away with it!â Thatâs when itâs time for Phuklub, right?
âYeah, thatâs right,â Ash confirms. âWhen I first realised nobody was really funny, I thought, âHang on Ash, itâs probably an ego thing; youâre still very new to this, your opinion really doesnât matterâ¦â â and I still donât think it matters that much. But when I came to Phuklub and I saw people who were just so happy to play at that level, it was comedy Zen for me. It was where you went to get the ego that you build up for yourself absolutely destroyed. Decimation of the ego was what it was all about for me, and I thought, âI need to be a part of thisâ.â
âJust because you are on stage with a microphone doesnât mean you deserve our attention,â Blake explains citing âthe first ever Phuklub as the best example of this point being illustrated.
âNick Sun got on stage. He had the mic, and he had some effects pedals, and he just started talking: âAll right folks, tonight I guess what weâre gonna do isâ¦â and he kept talking, but he hit something on the effects pedals and it turned into noise. Just garbled nonsense. And he kept talking. It was one of the funniest things I have ever seen. That was the start of it.â
So virtually anyone can get on stage at Phuklub. To stay on stage â and not be drowned out by heckles, voice-overs, audio stings, sound effects and the rabble, they have to have something to say thatâs worth hearing. That seems to be about it.
And even though it still seems like nebulous chaos, the collective â or cult â of comics who run it have âfound their feetâ when it comes to making it work. âNick Capper is the Voice of God a lot, so heâs on the microphone up the back,â Blake explains. âIâll do sound if Ellwoodâs not in town.â
âIâve MCâd a couple,â Ash offers. âMCing Phuklub is a very different experience to MCing a normal comedy room. Itâs more like being a fire-starterâ¦â
âYouâre the captain on a burning Viking ship,â Blake elaborates, âand itâs going into the water, but you gotta ensure it goes down as nobly as possible.â
âSo youâre effectively shouting, âRow, you f*ckersâ?â I suggest.
âYeah,â Blake says.
Ash illustrates it rather poetically:
âRow, you f*ckers! If this were to be our end, weâll meet this end with such glory that they will write about us. It will be such an end, worthy of remembrance.â
So every Phuklub ends in flames, but everyone still makes it to Asgard?
âIdeally, yes,â says Blake. âWe made it to Asgard the last few times. But we had a run in the middle of the year where we didnât make it; we couldnât even see the Rainbow Bridge on the horizon. If weâre to be honest, every room, no matter how good or bad, has good nights and bad nights. But with Phuklub, if weâre being completely honest, itâs how every single room should be: every night is a dice roll. Some are a little more certain than others.â
âThat, to me,â says Ash, âhas always been the beauty of it.â
Well thatâs Phuklub explained. Weâre still no closer to explaining Ha Ha Alternative Comedy, unfortunately. But why should we? You know itâs on, you know whoâs on. Thereâs nothing better to be doing on Sunday at 8pm.
It's a brilliant line-up for the first night: Nick Capper, Ben Ellwood, Blake Mitchell, Nick Sun with feature Shane Matheson and MC Ash Jattan (okay, to be honest, I would have included some alternative, funny women in the line-up too, so it wouldn't just be an boys' club â it's not as though there aren't brilliant, hilarious women on the scene even while the Cloud Girls and significant other stalwarts are overseas; but that's a discussion for another blog post).
It starts at 7:30pm. You want a good night of comedy, come.
âLike a lot of British, I came here
backpacking,â Rhys Jones explains. âAfter seven months Iâd run out of money and
got stuck in Sydney, and just kind of gave comedy a go.â
Iâd like to tell you that stand-up comic
Rhys Jones â who hails from Portsmouth, England â is an interesting guy; that
heâs an amazing comic; that heâs a close personal friend and itâs been a real
pleasure getting to know him; but I wonât. Because no matter how true all of it
is, Iâm only just getting to know Rhys and I have a certain amount of jealousy
that this guy can just pop up out of nowhere and be running a popular open mic
Okay, sure, he has been doing comedy for a
few years now â paid his dues and all that â and he himself admits that heâs
only really started to pick up momentum âover the last six months or soâ, but
this is also the guy whoâll occasionally give notice for failing to make a gig
because heâs landed another, MCing for strippers. When has your excuse for
âpikingâ ever been so good?
Meanwhile, his room, âStand Up, Get Downâ
at the World Bar on Bayswater Road, Darlinghurst, has gone from being
fortnightly to weekly. And Rhys is helping program comedy for festivals like
the up-coming Playground Weekender. So, no matter how good, nice, talented,
decent he is, or how hard heâs worked to be as successful as he is, I have to
hate him just a little bit on principle. How dare he be that cool, that good,
that essential to the growing comedy scene, seemingly out of nowhere?
Long Time Being
âIâve been here five years,â Rhys explains when we finally catch up for a chat â ostensibly to promote the Playground
Weekender festival. Despite being broke and stranded seven months into his
visit to Australia, now he is not so broke, and not quite stranded. Rather, he
says, heâs âkind of trappedâ â but in a good way: âowning thingsâ now prevents
him from heading home. Acquiring âbig thingsâ like a sofa, accumulating a life,
a career, and friends, he is essentially planting roots over here. âI like it,â
he says â and it must be liking him back. Friends are certainly harder to
offload on www.gumtree.com.au than the sofa, so why not stay! Especially when
it was âa dear friendâ that finally encouraged Rhys to take a stab at stand-up
âI was kind ofâpress-gangedâ into it,â he insists. âShe suggested it when
Iâd come up with a particularly witty quip at a dinner party. I kind of just
tossed the suggestion aside offhand. I blame her, basically.â Being the âdear
friendâ that she is, Rhys's buddy entered him into the Melbourne International Comedy
Festival/Triple J Raw Comedy competition. Which is a good thing. Because
despite growing up a âhuge student of comedyâ in England, where humour was
essentially âembeddedâ into him from an early age via sitcoms like âBlack Adder, Only Fools And Horses and the rest of itâ, he probably wouldnât
have gotten around to giving it ago himself. Sure, Portsmouth was a big enough
place to afford a lot of live comedy â with their own Jongleurs (part of a
UK-wide chain of venues) and âmajor actsâ like Harry Hill and Steve Coogan
passing through to play the Guildhall as part of a national tour, and even a
fortnightly comedy room at the Wintergreen â but there was no open mic scene to
speak of. So even though, Rhys says, comedy was something that heâd thought
about doing, something that heâd âalmost fantasised aboutâ, where was he going
to take the stage in order to learn the art?
Well, of course, there is Londonâ¦
âTo be honest, I found London quite a daunting prospect.â
Rhys admits. âSydney, as a city, is a really good middle ground, because itâs a
cosmopolitan city, but itâs not quite as harsh and as massive as London.â Itâs
also âby the seaâ, like his home town. So Sydney offers the best aspects of
London and Portsmouth with an easier entre â if youâre willing to take it â
into comedy. âSince Iâve tried stand-up in Sydney, and done it elsewhere in
Australia, I think Australiaâs a great place to âlearn the tradeâ, as it were.
Particularly in Sydney: most of the audiences are pretty attentive and have a âgood
on the newcomerâ attitude. I donât think Iâd be involved in comedy in the UK â
Iâd be the funny guy at the pub getting drunk every weekend. Now Iâm a guy
doing comedy and getting drunk every weekend. And occasionally during the
in the Raw
One point I am having trouble with is that
Rhys Jones was a Raw Comedy contestant in Sydney â having judged pretty much
all the Sydney heats for the last I-donât-know-how-many years, I must have
judged Rhysâs. How come I wasnât aware of him until he was doing well enough
for me to be jealous of his success? According to Rhys, his two attempts âended
in a bit of a disasterâ â as far as early attempts at amateur comedy go. âThe
first one was the first ever time I did comedy, and I lost my train of thought.
The second one, I forgot the last two minutes of my routine. After a promising
start, I just walked off.â
Iâm kind of relieved â Iâd hate to have
failed to spot a genuine talent. And, better still, it proves my strongest held
tenets about comedy and competitions: the point of doing comedy is to make the
audience laugh, not to win competitions. And the point of doing comedy
competitions is to make the audience laugh, not to win competitions. Some of
the finest talent you will ever be amused by, failed to win competitions â the
comedians who make it are the ones who keep getting back up on stage. And the
ones who start running their own venues so that they can keep getting back up
have a better chance of that. Rhys agrees. âThe only way you learn is through
those bad gigs. I think Iâve come along a lot.â
Too true. In fact, you learn a lot more
from a so-called âbad gigâ than you do from walking away from a âgoodâ one. In
fact, in my limited experience, itâs easy to walk away from a successful
performance a little bit proud and cocky, and then totally stuffing up the next
one as a result! Again, Rhys concurs: âI think the key to getting anywhere in
comedy â and Iâm still just starting out âis building a thick enough skin to deal
with the low blows.â
Which leads to the other golden rule of
stand-up comedy: no comic has ever done their best or worst gig. Thereâs always
going to be one down the track that could set the new benchmark! Thatâs just as
true â possibly more so â when running the room. Again, Rhys knows this only too
well. âYou really get an insight how tough it is marketing comedy to people,â he
says of his experience with âStand Up, Get Downâ. âThereâs been a bit of an
explosion with venues in Sydney in the last year. Some of them are doing better
than others. Ours is going steady. Weâve got a particular nicheâ¦ We do try and
promote the little guy, to a certain extent. Iâm all a bout giving headline and
MC spots to guys who are up-and-coming who perhaps wouldnât get on in a similar
capacity at other venues.â
Clearly, Iâd suggest, Rhys must be getting
right, seeing as âStand Up, Get Downâ has gone from a fortnightly room to a
âYeah, we changed that in December, the
reason being that it was impossible for people to keep track of what weeks we
were on. The idea to go weekly is just so people know every Wednesday thereâs
comedy at the World Bar, instead of having to faff around trying to work out
which week the night falls on.â
âThe weekly comedy room at the World Bar is
attached to a night called âThe Wallâ, run by my business partner Dan Chin.
Every week he has a different artist exhibiting upstairs and we run the comedy
out of that room. âStand Up, Get Downâ is also known as âComedy At The Wallâ
because itâs affiliated with this art space night.â
Oh, okay. So Rhys Jones in a nutshell: came
to Australia to realise the lifetime of comedy embedded into him, hitherto only
fantasised about, and contributes significantly to the local stand-up scene.
But thereâs more: in the process he also starts helping establish some of the
cooler aspects of the UK comedy scene Downunder. The Playground Weekender
festival, now in its fourth year, is the prime example of that.
âPlayground Weekender is a festival started
by English expats,â Rhys explains. âThey started up Good Vibrations a few years
ago before selling it on. The whole ethos is a British-style festival, so it
has a lot more of a laid-back aesthetic than, say, your Big Day Outs or your
other music events; the whole ethos is fun. Iâve been to every one and seen it
grow, which has been great.â
From barely 2000 attendees that first year
(still a significant start, of course), the Playground Weekender festival had
quadrupled in size by its third year: 8000 people. This year theyâre expecting
12,000. Not only that: this year thereâll be comedy. Using the British model,
where every festival has a comedy venue, Playground Weekender is offering two
hours of comedy on each of the festivalâs four nights, in âThe Shackâ.
âDan and I are both extremely chuffed that
theyâve asked us to host the comedy stage. Weâve got one of the main stages to
run. Itâs a beautiful setting as well: the Del Rio resort at Wisemans Ferry, on
the Hawkesbury River. Itâs just a really laid- back âanything goesâ attitude,
really. Like any music festival, itâs what you make of it. You can go for the
quiet time, or you can go crazy.â
Furthermore, there are live art
installations that culminate with a charity auction at the end of the festival,
hosted by Rhys. âWe did that a few years ago and it was a huge success,â he
says. Iâm impressed. More so, when I ask Rhys if he was instrumental in
ensuring comedy become a part of the festival. âAll the legwork was done by
Dan,â he says. âIâm just clinging onto his coattails and sorting out some
comics and getting the word out, I guess.â
Talented, successful and humble. Rhys, I
really want to like you, but you make it so difficultâ¦ And it gets worse:
âOur grand vision is to introduce this
format to other weekend festivals around Australia. In Britain itâs a given:
thereâs always a comedy tent in every festival you go to, which generally runs
all day, every day.If we could
introduce a scaled-down version, and perhaps, further down the line, have the
financial backing to get some really big names out, It could be something we
take around Australia with us.â
Umâ¦ Rhys, mate, Iâm just wonderingâ¦ is
there any more room on those coattails?
Playground Weekender runs for a four-day
weekend at Wisemans Ferry, from Thurs 18 Feb to Sun 21 Feb. A four-day ticket
is $219. A three-day ticket is $199 (plus booking fees). There are day tickets
available as well.
Musical artists include Orbital, Lupe
Fiasco, The Polyphonic Spree, The Cribs, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, Jamie
Lidell, Steve Lawler, Bluejuice, Bjorn Again, Gui Boratto, OK GO and LTJ Bukem.
More importantly, here are the comedians
appearing â in Rhysâs words, âour favourite performers of 2009:
Eric Hutton â Stand Up, Get Downâs favourite
headliner and a highly original
funny man. The Voice of Barry White with the delivery of a highly accurate
postman [Iâd say heâs the illegitimate product of an illicit tryst between The
Chaserâs Charles Firth and Andrew Hansen, but whatever â Dom], this strawberry
blond dynamo is a truly originally comic / the best freestyle rapper in town! http://erichuttontime.com/
Nick Sun â Fresh from a tour of the States
supporting Doug Stanhope, and on the verge of a fourth show at the Melbourne
International Comedy festival, Nick is a unique comedian who eschews the
artificiality of traditional stand up for a more insightful, honest and god
damn, sharp as a knife hilarious brand of comedyâ¦ http://www.nicksun.com/pages/multimedia.php
Shane Matheson â Highly unconventional,
brilliantly inventive and always hilarious, Shane is about to venture to
Melbourne International Comedy Festival for his third festival show. Superb
improviser and great ârandomistâ, Shane combines the fearlessness of Sam
Simmons, with the characterisation of those British legends Vic Reeves and Bob
Ryan Withers â Natural born funny man,
armed with a rapier wit and rather girlish looks, Ryan Withers aka DJ Randy
Winters, is a regular performer, and organisational contributor at Stand Up Get
Down. About to burst forth at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival with
his first solo show, Ryan has supported the likes of Arj Barker and Jamie
Kilstien here in Sydney. 2009 was a massive year, but it looks like 2010 is
truly going to be where this young Maestro really hits his stride. For an
insight into the truly unique mind of Ryan Withers read this recent column
where he interviews himself, wow, crazy fun!http://www.throwshapes.com.au/2009/12/17/comedy-gatecrash-ryan-withers-vs-ryan-withers/
The Cloud Girls aka Carnovale and Culp â
Past performers at Sydney Cracker, Melbourne Fringe and Adelaide Fringe
festivals, the Cloud Girls are truly unique character based comedians. Taking the
everyday mundane and turning it into great sketched routines, the C and C
laughter factory is going to be one not to miss! For a tiny taster check out
this clip http://www.youtube.com/user/carnovaleandculp#p/a/u/1/3XDCHQJIj60
With ample support coming from the likes of
Rhys Jones, Nick Capper, Dain Hedgpeth, Ray Badran, Rod Todd, John Cruickshank,
Ben Ellwood and more to be announced, expect a hilarious and diverse show from
Sydneyâs best alternative comedy collective!
For more information or questions on Stand
Up, Get Down please contact Rhys Jones at [email protected]
I have had the pleasure of watching Dave Jory develop as a comic, having judged his very first Raw Comedy heat in Sydney a few years back. He was a bit scary then - the bald head and the suit made him resemble one of those villains in a Guy Ritchie flick.
I was kind of eyeing the exits to make good my escape if he proved to be as dangerous as his image threatened.
Afterwards he came up and asked for advice. I told him he needed to be less scary up front, to win the audience over - one of the other judges thought he might cut them.
He learnt pretty quickly. Now Dave Jory lives up to the the title of his show - he's a polished stand-up comic. Hence his Melbourne International Comedy Festival show, Dave Jory is Polished.
I should also tell you that the basic design of Dave's flyer is by Kim Longue, who does the poster artwork for Sydney's original Comedy Store.
I am also producing Going Halves, a show also featuring two comics on the rise. James Lieutenant I have been watching in Raw Comedy for several years now; it's not something that crops up in the normal corse of interacting with him as a stand-up comic, but James is a gifted visual artist on the verge of something major. The same is true of his comedy.
Tom Gibson has been doing comedy for about as long, and last year placed third in Canberra's 'Green Faces' comedy competition.
These guys are the fresh face of the next generation of Aussie stand up.
And I want to add a note about the flyer. James organised the photo and insisted in no uncertain terms that I was to use it as is, without manipulating it in any way. I guess he wanted to ensure I didn't do to it what I did to the photos that made up the flyer for his Cracker show, Painful Truths, in which he split the bill with Ben Ellwood.
I'm producing two shows in the current Cracker Comedy Festival. Come and see these guys. I've had the pleasure of watching them all rise from Raw Comedy heats. They've all got unique world views that'll make you laugh, and, occasionally, if you're so inclinded, to think as well.